Tag Archives: Belgrade Theatre Coventry

Rock Bottom

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th June, 2019

 

Oddsocks return, not only to Coventry, but also to Athens, the fictional Athens of Shakespeare’s romcom, for this new production that marks thirty years in the business.  Director Andy Barrow never fails to come up with new ideas to reinterpret and restage the Bard, with his pared-down cast and signature Oddsocks humour.  A stroke of genius is to have the ‘Mechanicals’ as builders working at Theseus’s palace: and so the set is initially draped in their dustsheets before ‘transforming’ into the forest.  Barrow himself appears as Bottom the Builder (yes, he can!) complete with beer belly and builder’s bottom.  We laugh straight away but even dressed like this, Barrow can wring nuances from his characterisation.  His Egeus is a blustering gammon, and his Oberon is a towering faun, with cloven hooves and curling horns.

Most of the humour, most of the playing, is done with broad strokes, and Barrow’s cast prove masters (and mistresses) of the in-house style.   Alex Wadham’s cocky Demetrius and desperately melodramatic Thisbe; Asha Cornelia-Cluer’s upper-class twit of a Hippolyta, her plucky Helena and graceful Titania; Peter Hoggart’s sheepish Lion – (Hoggart brings slapstick, physical comedy to his Lysander); and Christopher Smart’s easy-going Theseus and officious Peter Quince… Alice Merivale’s feisty Hermia and her energetic Scouse Puck… The entire ensemble works tirelessly to populate the scenes, adlibbing when they need to but also delivering Shakespeare’s verse with expression and conviction.  This is Shakespeare at its most accessible – the inclusion of popular songs, played live by this versatile cast, adds to the fun and to the story.  I’ve seen many a jukebox musical where the song choices don’t work anywhere near as well.  Hermia and Lysander give a rendition of The Corrs’s Runaway, Helena sings You Can’t Hurry Love, Bottom treats us to Passenger’s Scare Away The Dark (I suspect Andy Barrow would be a rock star in another life)… The whole thing ends with Oberon and the Fairies Dancing in the Moonlight.  And it’s a blast.

Of course, the play-within-a-play is achingly funny, with the added bonus of a member of the audience selected to portray the Wall, for a spot of good-natured victimisation.  Where some productions attempt to make us feel with Thisbe’s mock-plaintive words, Barrow goes all-out for big laughs.  And gets them.

A joyous version, both faithful and subversive, that shows Oddsocks are still at the top of their game after all this time.  Here’s to the next thirty years!

A Midsummer Nights Dream

It Takes Two: Oberon (Andy Barrow) and Titania (Asha Cornelia Cluer)

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Worth a Gander

HONK!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th June. 2019

 

This musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling gives us the bird’s-eye view of life in a duck yard.  When the largest of four eggs hatches to duck-parents Drake (Chris Thomson) and Ida (Ellie Nunn), the poor soul to emerge from it faces mockery and rejection for being different.  “Ugly” sets off, inadvertently, on a journey until his true identity is revealed.  The message is simple and clear, and Anthony Drewe’s script is riddled with puns and animal-based idioms, ranging from corny to witty.  Aimed at a family audience, Drewe also includes the occasional risqué line to keep the grown-ups engaged.

Gregor Duncan is Ugly, a plucky and sympathetic figure, but it is Ellie Nunn as his mother who provides the emotional heart of the show.  Nunn is in great form – the songs are delivered with conviction and power.  In fact, the cast, whose choral singing is just lovely, do their utmost to sell the songs.  Some of George Stiles’s tunes are stronger and catchier than others but all of them are enriched by Anthony Drewe’s sophisticated lyrics.

It’s a small but hard-working cast.  Notable moments come from Peter Noden as a Black Country bullfrog and Emma Barclay’s haughty mandarin duck.  A highlight for me is a tango between two cats (Danni Payne and James Dangerfield).  Dangerfield in particular impresses with his villainous characterisation as the Cat, managing to be sinister and funny at the same time, using movement and physicality to enhance the role.  He also plays a mean violin, augmenting the band at the side of the stage, led by musical director Oli Rew.

It’s all well and good, amusing stuff, but I question some of the design choices.  The bird characters are totally anthropomorphised, with only orange stockings to signify their duck legs.  The Cat has ears poking through his hat.  But the three ducklings are puppets, with beaks, and umbrellas for bodies.  It’s a neat idea but seems to be at odds with everything else.  Similarly, the Bullfrog sports a spotted hoodie, but his Frog Chorus are goggle-eyed and green, and presented in a highly inventive way.  I think the production needs to decide which way it’s going to jump to give it a more coherent style.  I would have put beaks on the leads or flippers for their feet.  Or I would have done the puppets differently.  But that’s me.

There is much to admire and enjoy here.  Director Andy Room is not short of ideas: particularly effective is the swimming lesson that takes place on a couple of swivel chairs, and it’s great to hear a cast that can sing so well, with humour and emotion, elevating the rather slight tale into a piece that can be charming and delightful, if a little uneven.

S Rylander

James Dangerfield as the Cat (in the hat) and Gregor Duncan as Ugly (Photo: Scott Rylander)

 

 

 

 

 


Fare Play

APPROACHING EMPTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th March, 2019

 

Ishy Din’s new play is set in a small taxi firm in the North East, run by brothers Raf and Mansha.  The death of Thatcher has just been announced but, as we see from the way the action pans out, her legacy did not die with her.  Hard-nosed businessman Raf, obviously ailing from something, offers to let his brother buy him out.  Mansha seizes what seems to be a great opportunity, finding financial support to seal the deal from son-in-law Sully, and cab-driver Sameena.  The trio have big plans for the business except it quickly transpires they have been sold a pig in a poke…

It’s a conventional piece in terms of structure and presentation, but what sets it apart is how it brings the British-Asian experience to the fore.  Din’s writing is well-observed, naturalistic yet emotionally charged, and the characters are imbued with authenticity, thanks to the strong script and the excellent cast.

Kammy Darweish is superb as the downtrodden but optimistic Mansha, a man sold a dream that turns out to be a dud.  He could have wandered in from an Arthur Miller (All My Cabbies, perhaps, or Death Of A Taxi Operator) while Nicholas Khan is in perfect contrast as the smartly clad, tough-talking Raj.  Rina Fatania’s embattled and determined Sameena, working hard to get her kids back, is marvellous: we see how the attractiveness of the dream, the enticement of greed, can offer hope, and how devastating an effect it can have.  Nicholas Prasad is excellent as son-in-law Sully in a nuanced and credible portrayal, and there are powerful moments from Karan Gill as Shazad, Raf’s son, endangered by his father’s business practices.  Maanuv Thiara brings a touch of dark comedy and plenty of menace as Sameena’s thug brother, the true face of Thatcher’s legacy.

Director Pooja Ghal uses the close confines of Rosa Maggiore’s set to add to the tension.  The characters have little room for manoeuvre figuratively and literally, and when violence erupts it is all the more effective.

As TV commentary from Thatcher’s funeral drones on in the background, the play speaks to us today.  You can’t put money before people, is what it boils down to.  Making a living is important but making a killing makes you a c*nt.

A thoroughly absorbing drama, powerfully presented.  I’m tempted to say Ishy Din is the Asian David Mamet (and mean it as a compliment) but that would be a disservice to Din’s own distinctive voice.

Approaching Empty_Production_HelenMurray-82 (1)

Nicholas Prasad, Rina Fatania and Kammy Darweish (Photo: Helen Murray)

 

 


Funny Money

BILLIONAIRE BOY The Musical 

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 20th February, 2019

 

The children’s books of David Walliams have filled the gap left by Roald Dahl.  They are child-centred stories, with outlandish events and grotesque characters – usually the adults, save for one or two sympathetically presented ones.  Billionaire Boy the Musical  fits this mould exactly, telling the story of young Joe Spud, son of toilet-paper innovator Len, one of the richest men in the world.  For all his riches, Joe is unhappy.  He wants friends and so opts to go to the local comprehensive to make some.  It’s not long, of course, before his money gets in the way.

As Joe, Ryan Heenan is an appealing figure, boyish and with a superb singing voice that suits the rock and pop sensibilities of the score.  The songs (by Miranda Cooper and Nick Coler, with lyrics by Jon Brittain) are without exception catchy, with witty lyrics and in a range of styles.  Dean Nolan is great as the crass nouveau riche Len but seems to have the most fun as a disgusting dinner lady (imagine Matilda’s Miss Trunchbull let loose in a school kitchen!) Bringing out Len’s paternal side is the mighty Sophia Nomvete as Gwen, the Mum of Joe’s new friend Bob.  Nomvete has remarkable presence, whether she’s narrating, playing Gwen, or a more exaggerated character like the school teacher.

Lem Knights is great fun as Bob, bringing physical humour and also sensitivity to the role, while Eleanor Kane’s Lauren is cute and energetic without being too girly.  Jared Leathwood and Natalie Morgan gurn and growl as school bullies, the Grubbs. (Cast members also play musical instruments, augmenting the upstage band)

Special mention to Avita Jay, doubling as Len’s gold-digging model girlfriend Sapphire Stone and as shopkeeper Raj (a staple of Walliams’s books) working the audience and doing a lot of the frame-breaking.  This is a show that establishes a rapport with the audience without going full-on panto.  We are included in everything and somehow the overt theatricality of the piece draws us in rather than alienating us in a Brechtian fashion.

It’s a funny and engaging production.  Director Luke Sheppard keeps everything lively so when the moments of pathos come, they are all the more touching.  There’s a wealth of talent at work here in a show rich with comedy, infectious tunes and a moral, which is perhaps obvious but is not hammered home.

Working with Nuffield Southampton Theatres, the Belgrade has struck it rich with this vibrant new musical.  I loved every minute.

Ryan Heenan & Lem Knights as Joe & Bob in Billionaire Boy the Musical - credit Manuel Harlan

Golden boys Ryan Heenan as Joe and Lem Knights as Bob (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Squid Pro Quo

OCTOPUS SOUP!

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 5th February, 2019

 

This production is the world premiere of a brand-new farce, written by Jack Milner and Mark Stevenson.  Certainly, many of the key ingredients are here: heightened situations, people talking at cross-purposes – the protagonist even gets his trousers off in the first couple of minutes!  And yes, it is very funny but, as it turns out, this farce is more than frothy entertainment.  Like the titular dish, there are meaty bits to chew on…

Nick Hancock is tightly wound insurance consultant Seymour Norse, preparing for a video call with Gillian Bevan’s formidable CEO, Virginia Whale.  Having a character on-screen brings this conventional format up-to-date, and there is a lot of mileage in what Virginia is permitted to see and hear, thanks to the ministrations of hapless, arthritic burglar, Marvin Haynes (Paul Bradley on excellent form).  Add to the mix, Carolyn Backhouse as Gloria, Seymour’s histrionic actress wife, and The Bill’s Eric Richard as menacing underworld boss, Alan, and the stage is set for a fraught dinner party, full of misunderstandings and cracking one-liners – all while trying not to stress out Terry, the burglar’s pet octopus.  Hancock and Bradley make a fine duo, and Backhouse is a scream as the egotistical Gloria.  Eric Richard has a strong presence, on the other side of the law for once, and Gillian Bevan is both glamorous and haughty.  As the plot extends its tentacles, pulling everyone into a scam that could be worth billions, it’s every person for themselves.

It’s in the second act that the show’s message comes to the fore.  Milner and Stevenson use a dated, conventional format to speak to us of the present.  “What the world needs now is brains not bullets” is just the start of it.  Parallels are drawn between insurance CEO Virginia and organised crime boss Alan: capitalism is criminal activity, or certainly immoral and unethical, legal though it may be.  Seymour finally gets to deliver his presentation, a plea for the rehabilitation of the financial sector the world so desperately needs.

Played with energy and conviction by all concerned, this is a hugely enjoyable piece of work, and you get the feeling that things are tightening up as the run gets into its stride.  Pacing is everything in farcical situations and director Joe Harmston clearly has an eye for comic business and another for building tension.

Like Terry the octopus, this show has legs…

Nick Hancock and Paul Bradley in Octopus Soup! - credit Robert Day

NIck Hancock and Paul Bradley in one of the show’s calmer moments! (Photo: Robert Day)


Best Case Scenario

THE VERDICT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Wednesday 30th January, 2019

 

Famously made into a Paul Newman film in 1982, Barry Reed’s book is here adapted for the stage by Margaret May Hobbs.  There is a strong affinity between the law court and the theatre, because of the rituals, the adversarial nature of the lawyers, and the potential for surprise.

The first act is split mainly between Frank Galvin’s shabby office and Meehan’s Irish bar in Boston, with the odd scene in Galvin’s rival’s office and a judge’s chambers, all presented on a sturdy, detailed set designed by Michael Lunney.  The set adds weight to the drama and, along with the convincing accents of the cast, gives the piece an authentic tone.

As plucky attorney, Frank Galvin, Ian Kelsey is eminently watchable, wearing the role like a pair of comfortable old shoes.  Drinking incessantly, it seems, and viewing the world through Jameson’s-tinted glasses, he is the decent man, standing up for the helpless (in this instance, a young mother reduced to a persistent vegetative state by alleged medical neglect).  Assisting him is his mentor, the irascible Moe Katz, played by the ever-excellent Denis Lill.

Christopher Ettridge also impresses as the big bad lawyer, defending the hospital and the church dioceses that runs it.  As does Richard Walsh as Bishop Brophy, who rounds out a potentially villainous role with humanity.

It’s a large and strong cast with pleasing character work from the likes of Anne Kavanagh as the victim’s mother, Michael Lunney as genial bartender Eugene, and Okon Jones in a hugely enjoyable portrayal of expert witness Lionel B Thompson.  Paul Opacic is suitably suave and assured as flashy doctor Rexford Towler, and there is a striking cameo from Karen Drury as Nurse Mary Rooney.

It’s a wordy piece but is so compellingly played you hardly notice the lengthy running time.  It’s a slow-burner, gradually establishing the background of the case, leading up to a trial scene that does not disappoint.  Michael Lunney’s (that name again!) direction paces the action superbly, so that when the shocks and revelations come, he elicits gasps and murmurs from the enrapt audience.

This high-quality production rewards the attentive audience – and, on a side-note, it also serves as a stark reminder that our American cousins have to pay exorbitant sums for their health care, a sorry state of affairs we must not allow to become the case here, as some in our present government would wish.

galvin&moe_ian kelsey & denis lill

Dream team: Ian Kelsey and Denis Lill

 

 


Woke!

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd November, 2018

 

No matter how beautiful you are, there’s no danger of dozing off during this year’s festive offering at the Belgrade.  As usual, it’s written and directed by the mighty Iain Lauchlan, who also appears as amiable dame, Nanny Fanny McWheeze, this is a cavalcade of fun, showing off Lauchlan’s mastery of the form, his skills as a performer, and crucially, his innovations.  For example, the traditional slosh scene (icing a cake) is set-up brilliantly, involving an Alexa-type device (a Scottish version named Morag!) who reels off the instructions of how to play the sport curling, which the cast mistake for cake-decorating tips.  Add to the mix, a hapless member of the audience who is game for a laugh, and this extended slapstick scene builds superbly.  Genius!

Also returning is Lauchlan’s regular stage partner, the hilarious Craig Hollingsworth.  This year he’s Muddles the Jester, and he’s as irritable as Nanny Fanny is amiable.  Hollingsworth’s short temper and long-suffering stance are the perfect foil for Lauchlan’s kindnesses, and also for the more saccharine elements of the story.  If this partnership ever splits, the Belgrade will probably crumble.

In the title role, Melissa Brown-Taylor is a plucky Princess Belle, while Joanna Thorne’s Prince Valiant is leggy and heroic as a principal boy should be; (it seems contemporary theatre is catching up with the gender-swapping that has been a staple of pantomime all along!).  Declan Wilson is a cuddly King Hugo, with Vicky Field making an impression as his ill-tempered, ill-fated Queen.  Field soon reappears as Grunge, sidekick to the evil fairy in an enjoyable portrayal.  Anna Mitcham’s good fairy Azurial is, in her own words, ‘perky’, assisted by a troupe of youngsters as her fairy assistants.  But it is Laura Judge’s villainous Carabosse who almost steals the show.  Bitterly melodramatic, Judge’s high-camp performance is a treat.

There is spectacle, of course: watch out for a dragon (it’d be hard to miss!) and a lively ensemble in beautiful story-book costumes by Terry Parsons.  Jenny Phillips’s choreography gets its big moment in the Act Two opener.  The original songs (by Lauchlan, Liz Kitchen and Steve Etherington) aren’t bad, each one serving its purpose and played by a tight combo under the able baton of Dan Griffin.  There are well-worn routines given a new spin, and up-to-date topical references.

The overall feel is trad meets new, and like the Prince and Princess, it’s a perfect match.

Iain Lauchlan & Craig Hollingsworth as Nanny McWheeze & Muddles - photo credit Robert Day

Something’s come between us! Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth perform a spot of high culture (Photo: Robert Day)